Pro·tag·o·nist (n.): The Main Hero in a Story

Posted: June 8, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

“A static hero is a public liability.  Progress grows out of motion.” – Richard Byrd, Explorer

Hero.  Champion.  Principal.  Leader.  Stalwart.  Defender.  Adventurer. 

When asked to describe how they see their character, most players of RPG’s tend to respond with words like those I’ve listed above.  We want to be champions.  We want to play adventurers.  We want to feel like heroes. 

The boxes and websites that sell these games to us market to that desire.  Individuals or groups pose heroically, usually facing off against some villanous or epic monster.  The implied idea is that this game will give you the opportunity to play a leading role in such an exciting story.

We buy the games.  We load them up and we click start.  We create our characters, often choosing some exotic humanoid race and selecting some strong or heroic sounding character class.  We load up the game and within minutes we’re asked to perform a quest to help the local folks.  Here we go!  This is what we wanted!  This is why we bought this game!  Now, let’s get out there and…kill 10 badgers. 

Now, I know I know I’ve sort of addressed this subject before, but I wanted to specifically talk about the “kill 10 rats” quests that a new player first sees (and the previous post was specifically geared toward guild writs in EQ2).  The entire idea still grates on my nerves a bit. 

I think back to when I was running Earthdawn and Mechwarrior and Shadowrun campaigns.  I can’t recall the last time I made the players run their characters through anything even remotely referred to as a quest that involved them killing 10 of anything remotely mundane for the sake of helping a village out.

In my mind, aren’t there regular, mundane townsfolk available to kill these pests?  Seriously, doesn’t anyone have a housecat available or perhaps a set of hunting dogs ready to chase down a few rats?  If you were creating a pen-and-paper campaign setting, is this the type of activity you’d set up regularly to challenge your local band of “heroes”?

Honestly, can you just see it now if this were the norm in our most enduring works of fiction? 

“Upon my word!” said Thorin, when Bilbo whispered to him to come out and join his friends, “Gandalf spoke true, as usual! A pretty fine burglar you make, it seems, when the time comes. I am sure we are all for ever at your service, whatever happens after this. But what comes next?”

Bilbo saw that the time had come to explain his idea, as far as he could; but he did not feel at all sure how the dwarves would take it.

“I feel we should exterminate all the deer here in this glen, to better provide the nearby folk with fur for winter’s clothing.  And after, we should collect up 10 bundles of firewood for their cooking.  And for the cooking, we should endevor to then kill 10 more deer, for we will have neglected to fully utilize the carcasses of the first deer we killed…”

Seriously, I cringe when I see 20 deer within view randomly roaming around.  Even better, I love seeing 20 bears just meandering hither on yon, striding randomly over the hills and forests of the worlds we choose to live in online.

I often imagine some imaginary virtual DNR agents going absolutely crazy when they see such massive populations of bears out roaming the countryside.  Seriously, at the density you see bears in most games these days, one would think that they’re damn near destroying their own fragile virtual ecosystems. 

Speaking of which, why do we accept such populations as normal?  I’ve gone camping hundreds of times throughout my life, sometimes in some pretty brutal conditions.  I actually live IN Minnesota, and have spent more hours outdoors than most computer geeks my age could probably comprehend.  I’ve yet to see an actual living bear, and only on a handful of occasions have I seen tracks at all.

Now, I’ll grant you that within my industrialized society, bears are far more scarce than they were a century or two ago, yet I bet even then you’d be hard pressed to find any accounts of large packs of wild bears wandering the countryside in groups of 20 or more…

Even if they were, why are adventurers being hired to take down bears?  Are these magic bears?  Are these bears inherently evil?  Are these bears wearing armor?  Seriously, I realize that our characters are supposed to be stronger than the average inhabitant of the worlds we live in, but doesn’t the bar seem a tad low on that “average” when we receive quests that include mundane animals, anyway?

In other words, why are we hunting snakes and rats and bats and deer and bears in the first damn place!?  Shall we then follow that up by heroically planting the spring wheat and courageously milking the cows before breakfast? 

I’m going to write a book based on the daily “adventures” of my MMO characters sometime.  On page 20, you can read about how mighty Kendricke was tasked with killing deer in the local glen.  On page 130, you can follow the adventures of Kendricke as he tracks down some deer for the local authorities.  On page 647, you can turn the pages to see Kendricke mercilessly slaying some deer in the hinterlands.  On page 1,132, Kendricke is finally hunting some deer…

I understand that MMO’s have to have some reference points for players.  I also appreciate that only so many different creature models can be put into MMO’s to begin with, and that there’s not a lot of room for “fluff” creatures.  I can appreciate that writing unique quests takes a lot of work to both design and test. 

And really, it’s irrelevant to me.  Because I want to play a protaganist online.  I want to be a hero.  I want to adventure.  I want to perform tasks in-game that virtual bards will want to sing about. 

What bard wants to sing around running mail?  Or hunting rats?  Or stalking deer?

I say leave the extermination to the local sherrifs and huntsmen.  I want to be a champion.  I want to play an adventurer.  I want to feel like a hero.

Though it seems counter to most current designs, I’d prefer less population and quests, in favor of making the remaining population and questing more engaging and exciting.  I want less quantity if it means more quality. 

I realize this can lead to a real issue of competition within most games.  However, using creative instancing and quest triggers, I think you could very well shift a game’s focus from “grinding” and “camps” toward engaging storytelling. 

I think that in many ways, the MMO’s today are too far removed from their roots around the dinner table.  I often wonder if too many game designers are thinking more like software developers and less like pen-and-paper Gamemasters.  I realize that these are different beasts we’re talking about here, but the ultimate goal for both should still remain the same:  tell a compelling, epic story, and allow the player to participate in the formation of that story.

How many MMO’s live up to that simple desire?  When’s the last time you felt as though your character was a protaganist, and not merely part of the supporting cast?

When’s the last time you felt as if your character was a hero?

  1. cdsorden says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about that whole “heroic purpose” concept for the last few days, actually. I wonder if we’re not missing the mark altogether with what really appeals to most people. As gamers, most of us are giant geeks. We eat up the “marked by destiny” and “epic hero” concept bullshit like candy, because we grew up on LoTR and Star Wars and Fantasy novels that all have remarkably similar protagonists (Rand Al’Thor, Paul Atreides, and Richard Rahl are the same freaking person).

    But I can’t help but feel like most people just don’t care. I mean, how many times have you geeked out over some epic story and a non-gamer was like, “Uh-huh… interesting.” Some of the best works of classic literature focus on a protagonist who isn’t special or heroic, but instead is quite human and average. It’s often the circumstances and the interaction that make a great story or experience.

    Are we trying too hard to provide an unrealistic experience in MMOs? Why do we need to be superheroes to have fun? If we didn’t go in expecting to slay dragons (and haven’t you slayed enough dragons in your gaming career by now), maybe we could focus on expanding the genre a bit.

  2. kendricke says:

    I’m not saying we need to be superhuman, but generally speaking, the tasks themselves should be a bit more than mundane ventures. Even if we were superhuman, would we be so enthralled by the same tasks that everyday folks are supposed to do?

    How often would we retell the Trials of Hercules if the only things he had to do were common farm chores and taking part in a regular ole’ boar hunt. These weren’t tasks that required a hero to complete.

    Honestly, do farmers today pick up Soldier of Fortune magazine when they notice a few rats in the grain? Or do they just head down to the supply co-op and pick up some traps or bait? This isn’t exactly the stuff of legends…it’s barely small talk fodder.

  3. “As gamers, most of us are giant geeks.”

    I don’t think that most of us are giant geeks anymore. Games like WoW and Toon Town and others have changed this.

    What about having two categories of “quests.”? What about quests and tasks. A quest is story-driven and something you’d actually care about, scaled to what you are capable of in game. In contrast, a task is simply a way for you to gain xp and money. The difference would come with what you are awarded with for each. Questing should give signficantly more xp related to your characters attributes and knowledges, etc. Sometimes you are awarded with good chunks of money (if it fits the story) and other times not. You quest to advance your character as a being.

    Tasks on the other hand are there for you to earn money, get resources, etc. The stuff that you need to survive in the world that is repetitive, but doesn’t do much of anything (if anything) to actually advance your character in the game setting.

    Will people grind? Yes, but they have that option. It’s no longer (I’m grinding to 70) it’s (I’m grinding to get enough money to pay for uber l33t mega dragon slaying dirt shoveling dish washing longsword).

  4. cdsorden says:

    See, that’s exactly my point though. You’re still looking at it from “the adventure is killing the rats” perspective. In that case, you’re totally right. For that to be at all interesting those rats had better be fucking huge. And you need to be killing them with a machine gun. Otherwise, what’s the point? I can go spider-hunting in my own house if we’re doing routine “clear-the-pest” tasks, and I don’t need to pay $15/month to do it.

    But why do we insist that that’s the interesting part of these games? Killing shit is fun, but only to a certain point. I don’t consider the trials of Hercules a particularly interesting or complex story, and even that has plenty of lust and anger and wrath and revenge. They wouldn’t have been very interesting if the whole story was, “Herc killed a dragon. Herc killed a hydra. Herc killed a minotaur. Uh, it was all for Zeus.” That’s really what a lot of MMOs boil down to. “Look a dragon. You’re epic. It’s deadly. Go kill it and get the loot. Yay!” That seems like a pretty simplistic and juvenile motivation.

    I think we need to find a way to bring more drama into our games. That’s human condition drama, not whiny bullshit drama. They aren’t appealing to most people because most people don’t think it’s cool to randomly kill stuff and steal their possessions, and they haven’t grown up with the epic destiny line fed to them over and over in their media of choice.

    Why can’t we do or see cool things that don’t involve killing all of our foes? Why do we need identifiable and pathetically obvious “bad guys?” We want people to stop identifying games as “just for kids”, and we can’t get out of a cops and robbers mentality.

    The mundane quests come because people want content and need stuff to do. But when the company line is “Epic adventure awaits you,” and “Slay amazing and powerful creatures for rare and ancient artifacts,” people expect a game where you kill things. And get stuff. And no matter how epic your items are or how scary the monsters are, eventually you realize it’s just more of the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s kill ten rats or slay ten balrogs. It’s still going to be boring when you’ve done it 100 times before.

  5. cdsorden says:

    And Jon, that’s a decent idea. EQ has something along those lines, IIRC…

  6. ogrebears says:

    In most fantasy books i’ve read animals have always seemed to be bigger, taller, and stronger than they are in real life. A Classic example is in Lord of the Rings. The Elephants where not just elephants, they where Huge things.

    Rats does feel like your being let down fighting a small thing, but rats have always been feared in the past religous/culturs because rat where saw as a bring of disease, and death..

    Now deers… that just being lazy..

  7. wilhelm2451 says:

    I think part of the draw, for both players and designers, of the kill 10/20/50 quests is that they are something that can be completed in increments.

    My friends and I have often speculated on “wouldn’t you rather want to spend 1 hour stalking one mean bear for a good fight than spend an hour killing 20 modest bears in the forest of bear procreation?”

    We always say yes, but the reality is that we are all older and have responsibilities that draw us away from the game. In the end, weeks could go by before I am in a position to get to the right place and stalk that bear. But the 20 bears? I can kill five tonight, seven tomorrow, and grab that last eight come the weekend. It caters to a casual reality in a game with no save function.

    And then there is another tack, which is heroes may be heroes in song, but that doesn’t mean they did not spend a lot of time building up to their heroic stature. And even when in their heroic state, not every quest is of equal renown.

    For example, we all know about Hercules defeating the hydra as part of his labors. But how much time do the bards spend singing about his time chasing away the Stymphalian birds? That was a quest that ranked right up there with Beetle Herding – Act VI.

  8. wilhelm2451 says:

    And, to actually answer you question, I have actually felt reasonably heroic lately working my way into the Pillars of Flame. It is a new zone to me, and there is something about a new place with lots of mobs that are yellow and orange to me that makes me feel quite the adventurer, even when seeking 10 harpies or searing scorpions. There is danger. I could easily make a mess of things if I do not watch out and end up in a fight beyond my means. I do not know my way around. I have no idea what is over the next rise. It might be more harpies, or it could be some 4x epic.

    In addition to the lone stalker in a new and dangerous place, small group actions make me feel pretty heroic. Running through the five player instances in WoW lead to a number of white knuckle fights that gave quite an adrenaline rush. (And woke up my wife at 1am at one point.) Those adventures, which are more removed from the kill 10 variety, are my favorite.

    And now you will probably rebuke me for my philistine point of view, but the place I feel the least heroic is in a big raid. Being a small part of a big group takes too much influence over the actual fight off of my shoulders, even if I have a key role. (And when I have a key role in a raid, everybody is in trouble.) On the other hand, my raiding time in EQ2 has been pretty limited, so there is also the anxiety of doing my part right so as not to let down the team. I worry far more about that than the fight itself.

  9. kendricke says:


    Why are the only two colors in the equation “kill 10 rats” or “spend an hour stalking a bear”. Where’s the “move to location X and find quest update which leads you to location Y to find quest update which leads you to location Z where you find bear cave (instance)…”.

    You don’t need to kill 10 rats to build incremental steps into quest design.

    I approach design questions as if I were sitting around the dinner table. I can tell you right now that spending an hour killing rats AND chasing birds for weeks on end would not make it to my campaigns. It’s neither challenging nor compelling.

    As far as raids go, you’ve apparantly never felt your heart jump when, after spending weeks questing and raiding as part of an epic storyline, you stood on a rock together with 23 guildmates and watched Darathar the ancient dragon fly over your head.

    I remember that first fight against Darathar with my guild. It was absolutely breathtaking.

    I recall the first time we fought Venekor, and the first time we downed Vyemm. I remember every member of the guild working together to get into Deathtoll, and how unbelievable it felt when we finally took down Tarinax.

    It may not feel particularly heroic to be a part of a team for some players, and I can appreciate that. However, even Hercules was an Argonaut for a while, and though there were certainly more than a few heroes in their own right crewing the Argos, I’m going to bet that even the lowliest grunt onboard felt at least a tad heroic at the sights they witnessed throughout their journeys.

  10. […] Vendor trash is just crap and a cheesy cop out by devs.  Kendricke has a good rant on this here and I’ve mentioned it before in other contexts too, here and […]

  11. There’s something missing that you have to remember when you talk of killing the 10 rat quests. That simple, mundane quest is there not to annoy us or because the designers simply don’t have the creativity to come up with something else, but instead to teach us the game. We have that task because we enter this game and have no clue (even if we’re seasoned MMOGers) how to play just yet. Sure, most of us could pick it up with a less mundane and over-simplified quest, but we’re not who’s targeted with this quest.

    What we need is choices. We need to not all be shoved into a single bucket of entry-level gameplay. We need more engaging quests for those of us who either don’t want something so mundane or (my wife fits in here) just simply don’t want to kill stuff.

    We need good starting tutorials (that we can bypass if we so desire) which teach us the lay of the land and then let us have choices of starter-quest types.

    What I find amusing about this is I wonder how many of you who complain about the KTR quest grind your way through alts? Isn’t grinding just an archaic extension of the KTR quest? You’re not doing it to engage in the game, you’re doing it to level…

  12. kendricke says:

    There’s “kill 10 rats in the barn” and “kill 10 rodents of unusual size down by the bog because they managed to kill some livestock yesterday and then mauled Bob something fierce when he went to take a look”.

    Virtually identical quests. Vastly different approaches from a storyline perspective.

    As far as “grinding” for alternates, I have some other ideas that I think could (A) improve replayability and (B) add depth to the game overall. Of course, that’s for another entry. 😉

  13. To be honest those both look like the same quest to me. 99% of the quests I accept I don’t bother taking the time to read why I’m told what I’m being told. I’m so dissapointed with the lack of GOOD story and roleplaying in these games that I simply am there to get the quest and hope it’s semi interesting when I’m out doing it.

    I recently created a character in SWG just to give it another shot (thanks to MMMOGIG for making me want to play again.. don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing yet, more on that on my blog) and found myself ACTUALLY READING the quests. i didn’t on the first couple, but quickly found myself wanting to know what I was actually doing. I did this because the quests weren’t actually that mundane nor were they telling me to just kill 10 rats. I had a chain quest within 15 minutes of starting a character. A chain that only involved killing to get to where I was going until about the 3rd leg!

  14. kendricke says:

    It’s all in the presentation.

    Think back to your dinner table days. In your mind, pull out the 10 sided dice, and unfold the ole’ GM screen. Make sure to have your handy case of Mountain Dew nearby and a few hefty sourcebooks to make sure you have all the facts you need nearby.

    Now, tell the story…

    There’s an old rule in writing: “Don’t tell me…Show Me!” If you tell players “you need to kill 10 rats”, you’re not showing them a problem. If you even tell players “there are these giant rats that attacked our children and then Bob tried to stop them”, you’re still telling them – not showing them.

    You want to engage players in a storyline, stop telling them and show them. Keep the passages short. Keep the reading to a minimum. MMO’s are a visual medium, use that to advance the story.

    The bottom line is that we want to feel heroic. Even if we’re out there killing rats, we want to feel as if this is something that helps out – not that it’s just a chore. I’d be thrilled to see a game that gave much more involved, challenging quests which advanced stories…than more games which were proud of how “many” quests they have.

    When I see a marketing tag line on a features list for a new upcoming release that excitedly talks about “500 new quests” coming, the first thing I start to wonder is how many of those quests are quick, one stop quests that involve killing X number of Y; how many involve running from A to B and back again; and how many are some manner of collection or tradeskilling “quest”.

    Include tasks or jobs or work orders if you want, but I assert that a quest by any other name is going to smell just as stale if the requisite back-end work isn’t put into it.

    I would further submit that the first company that figures out how to make players feel heroic from the first log-in on up through to the end game will have found a virtual license to print money.

  15. Loralor says:

    How are “kill 10 rats” quest designed…

  16. […] it’s even deeper than that. I see a lot of complaining that quests aren’t complex enough. People are tired of being asked to kill ten […]

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